The Sundance Film Festival’s early days may have been overshadowed by the one-two punch of Friday’s presidential inauguration and Saturday’s women’s marches, but this 33rd annual edition has slowly but surely roused itself to life. The festival laid claim to its first major crowd-pleaser on Friday with the world premiere of director Michael Showalter’s “The Big Sick,” an effortlessly funny and charming romance that subtly deepens into a moving portrait of cross-cultural, cross-generational bonds.
Acquired by Amazon Studios for $12 million after a heated bidding war, “The Big Sick” is drawn from the life of “Silicon Valley” actor Kumail Nanjiani, who stars as a younger (but present-day) version of himself. A Pakistani American man struggling to succeed as a stand-up comic in Chicago, Kumail has a very public meet-cute with a friendly heckler named Emily (Zoe Kazan). And so begins a relationship marked by startling emotional highs and lows, but mostly by a generous stream of laughter — and while Kumail may be a professional in that department, he wisely doesn’t monopolize the jokes, as Emily’s spiky sense of humor both matches and complements his own. (Nanjiani co-wrote the script with Emily V. Gordon, his wife.)
The involvement of producer Judd Apatow can be seen in the roundedness of the characterizations and the pleasing messiness of the movie’s emotional texture. But Nanjiani’s immigrant identity opens up an entirely new dimension of the Apatovian universe for him to colonize. In the movie, Kumail is too scared to break the news about his white girlfriend to his strict Muslim parents, who only want him to settle down with a nice Pakistani American girl.
Many people watched the George Zimmerman trial in 2013 and felt outrage. Reggie Rock Bythewood and Gina Prince-Bythewood experienced that too — and saw an opportunity.
The couple and creative collaborators — known for their work independently as well as on shared efforts like the romantic drama "Beyond The Lights" — decided to take out their laptops and do something about it.
"We watched the Zimmerman verdict [in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin] with our son, and when he was found not guilty our form of consoling our son was showing him an Emmett Till documentary," said Rock Bythewood. "Then we said: 'As artists it's also our responsibility to hold up a mirror to our society.'"
"Is your coat wool?” Alfre Woodard asked as she sat at a long, flower-filled table draped with purple paisley Italian linen. “I’m allergic to wool. I can never wear anything nice.”
Under the cavernous, vaulted ceiling of a mountain mansion, where the driveway was heated, an indoor stream trickled and a string of faux llamas stood guard on the stone staircase, Woodard sipped a spoonful of vegan cream of vegetable soup served by celebrity chef Cat Cora. Nearby, Marti Noxon, one of the creators of the Lifetime series "Unreal," talked about her feature film debut, “To the Bone,” which would sell the next day to Netflix for a reported $8 million.
Here at the home of ChefDance CEO and founder Mimi Kim, Woodard, Shirley MacLaine, Elle Fanning and Jill Soloway were just part of a formidable group gathered during the Sundance Festival for a lunch to celebrate women in film.
By the time the Sundance Film Festival came to a close Saturday night, it was clear that there had been no 2017 equivalent of “The Birth of a Nation” at the festival this year — no cinematic sensation that swooped in from nowhere to dominate the prizes, score the biggest acquisition deal and promise the industry a badly needed diversity makeover. (Happily, this year’s Academy Award nominations have spared us a three-quel to #OscarsSoWhite.)
If anything, a certain amount of caution could be detected on the part of distributors, journalists and even filmmakers, as though everyone in attendance were trying to avoid the trap of self-importance in a year when real-world matters — from President Trump’s inauguration and the women’s march to reports of a cyber attack on the festival — provided more than their fair share of off-screen drama.
Which is not to suggest that the films unveiled over 10 days in Park City, Utah, were somehow disappointing, or not up to the challenge of speaking to our politically fraught moment. Far from it. There were, as usual, movies about fractious racial divisions, including “Mudbound,” Dee Rees’ symphonic, superbly acted drama about two Mississippi families — one white, one black — struggling to survive in the shadow of World War II.
Last year’s Sundance Film Festival saw two of the priciest deals in the history of this gathering: Fox Searchlight’s record-breaking $17.5 million for “The Birth of a Nation” and Amazon/Roadside’s not quite as Brinks-busting $10 million for “Manchester by the Sea.”
Those films wound up with two, well, very different commercial fates. As much as dollars can be an indicator of a film’s value, they’re hardly an ironclad guarantee of success. Too many other factors can enter the picture between the January frenzy in the mountains and the fall derby into which many of these films will enter.
Judging by the totals in Park City this year, buyers are feeling optimistic. Very optimistic. Whether it’s traditional players like Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics, newer movers-and-shakers such as Amazon and Netflix or even upstarts like Neon and FilmRise, wallets have been opening up over the last week at Sundance. As of Friday, a whopping eight movies have gone for at least $5 million as the quantity of buyers (and, depending on whom you ask, the quality of movies) has sent dollar amounts skyward.
A Sundance Film Festival that was colored, gripped and sometimes overshadowed by the early days of the Donald Trump administration saw a slew of feminist films win big at the gathering's awards. Multiple female filmmakers nabbed top prizes, while a tale of a woman reasserting control over her life scored the festival's highest honor.
Macon Blair's "I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore," in which Melanie Lynskey plays an ordinary woman who becomes empowered as a detective-avenger after she is robbed, won the U.S. grand jury prize in the dramatic category. To its fans, the genre-tinged film, which Netflix will release next month, serves as a tonic to the perceived anti-female policies of the Trump administration.
And Eliza Hittman's gay coming-of-age story "Beach Rats" won the directing award for the U.S. dramatic section -- ensuring that a gathering that began with a march down this city's Main Street championing feminist values closed out with the same motif.